Editor’s Note: In recent weeks, there’s been an another upsurge in comments on stories on The Edge. In particular, comments have been coming fast and furious in response to the tragic situation at Eagleton School, a crisis that involves issues of fairness, the rights of those accused of a crime to be presumed innocent, and the nature of the alleged abuse at the school.
Once again, however, we’d like to repeat the advisory we published last November (see below), urging our readers to observe the etiquette of civic debate that requires the authors of viewpoints to identify themselves.
We are adding one additional guideline: comments that come to us via a deliberately disguised email address forfeit the privilege of being published on The Edge.
Great Barrington – Here at Edge Central we’ve been watching with pleasure and not a little amazement the flurry of activity in our Comments section, where so many people are exchanging views on the topics presented in our stories, reviews, letters and columns. The majority of the comments are thoughtful, well-written and advance the discussion of the issues at hand, just what a news and information medium should provide to encourage free expression and to promote a better understanding of what’s really going on and where it’s leading us. Indeed, it’s what we had in mind when we started The Edge – a forum for news and ideas worth sharing that creates a sense of community.
The comments are a place where ideas are shared, people join forces, organize and occasionally fight, and a place that enriches civic dialogue and good journalism so that we can continue to provide our readers with important, well-researched stories.
The dialogue is mostly healthy. But sometimes we are aghast at a comment that attacks the previous commenter, moves into personal territory, or mean-spiritedly abandons the issue at hand to expand on a paranoid or cynical paradigm. Sometimes the sheer volume of comments is too much for us to monitor, and false information is left to stand, though often it is corrected by another reader or a reporter.
Digital media has changed the way people interact with the news and each other. In the traditional newspaper medium, from which we come, letters to the editor were routinely fact-checked, with names, addresses and phone numbers confirmed, a standard that nowadays is more honored in the breach than the observance. But digital media is different and presents a conundrum, especially in a small community.
Some of our commenters use their full name, a name that can be found in the white pages with an address and phone number. Others give only their first name, but we can see their email addresses and so know they simply do not want to be too public. Others use fake names and real email addresses. Others yet use masked email addresses and fake names. On one occasion, a reader began commenting using the name of a prominent local resident, one who, it turned out, did not even use email.
Occasionally, we remove a hateful comment, or one that uses the Comment section to promote an agenda that has little to do with the topic. This is rare, but we are increasingly scratching our heads and spending a lot of time trying to sort out what we call the “comment problem.” Where do we draw the line between a critical comment and one that is designed to bully? We still want the comment area to be a place where people can safely travel, but also a place where real debate happens.
We’ve considered several options: requiring the use of real names, and checking them; allowing any name to be used as long as the email address isn’t masked; and requiring the reader to also add his town of residence. The idea is that with more transparency, a reader will think twice before making asinine comments or ad hominem attacks, especially in this new world where every mark one makes in the digital world is as everlasting as a tattoo. Still, we would prefer that those choosing to comment on The Edge would be willing to — as they say — “own” their viewpoints and observations by identifying themselves, much as they would at a New England town meeting.
We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention, that is, comments that disguise the writer’s email address and identity, or comments whose writer uses someone else’s name. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We will also consider your comments for the letters column.
We realize we have been generous – perhaps too generous — with our policy, not always rigidly adhering to it in the interests of encouraging a robust discussion. But given local controversies now ramping up, we will take this opportunity to follow it more strictly, by removing any comments with masked email addresses, any that stray from the topic, or that attack another reader.
We welcome your ideas (and comments) about how we can serve you and our community better, and about how to manage comments.